Sri Lanka: The Siege Within Continues…

Umakant is a Delhi-based activist and researcher.


Sri Lanka, a small island nation, besotted with ethnic strife mainly between dominant & majoritarian Sinhala and minority Tamil culminated into a full blown civil war for more than two decade. It was able to come out of this quagmire thanks to full support from regional super powers and military might that it acquired over the years. The eerie calm that prevails in the country belies the victory that the Sri Lankan Government and the Sri Lankan military so proudly proclaim.

A Panel of Experts Committee appointed by UN Secretary General after submitting its report on March 31, 2011 concluded that in the last phase of war against LTTE, an estimated 40,000 people would have been killed including women and children. This estimated figure was arrived at by verifying claims and counter claims from different sources, but the actual number may have been even higher and that is why an independent investigation was required to ascertain the total number of casualty. The Panel found credible allegations in the final stage of the civil war (between September 2008 and 19 May 2009). It comprises five core categories of potential serious violations committed by the Government of Sri Lanka: (i) killing of civilians through widespread shelling; (ii) shelling of hospitals and humanitarian objects; (iii) denial of humanitarian assistance; (iv) human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict, including both Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and suspected LTTE cadres; and (v) human rights violations outside the conflict zone, including against the media and other critics of the Government.

The Panel’s determination of credible allegations against the LTTE associated with the final stages of the war revealed six core categories of potential serious violations: (i) using civilians as a human buffer; (ii) killing civilians attempting to flee the LTTE control; (iii) using military equipment in the proximity of civilians; (iv) forced recruitment of children; (v) forced labour; and (vi) killing of civilians through suicide attacks.

The Panel averred that accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law is not a matter of choice or policy; it is a duty under domestic and international law. These credibly alleged violations demand a serious investigation and prosecution of those responsible, including Sri Lankan Army commanders and senior Government officials, as well as military and civilian LTTE leaders, would bear criminal liability for international crimes. At the same time, accountability goes beyond the investigation and prosecution of serious crimes that have been committed; rather it is a broad process that addresses the political, legal and moral responsibility of individuals and institutions for past violations of human rights and dignity. Consistent with the international standards mentioned above, accountability necessarily includes the achievement of truth, justice and reparations for victims. Accountability also requires an official acknowledgement by the State of its role and responsibility in violating the rights of its citizens, when that has occurred.

Displaced persons from the civil war in Sri Lanka/ August 22, 2008

The Panel further observed that Sri Lankan Government’s two pronged notion of accountability as explained to the Panel, focussing on the role of the past Governments and of the LTTE, does not envisage a serious examination of the Government’s decision and conduct in prosecuting the final stages of the war or the aftermath, nor of the violations of law that may have occurred as a result. The Panel thus concluded that the Government’s notion of accountability is not in accordance with international standards. Unless the Government genuinely addresses the allegations of violations committed by both sides and places the rights and dignity of the victims of the conflict at the centre of its approach to accountability, its measures will fall dramatically short of international expectations. There are serious shortcomings in other domestic measures like The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC); lack of required political will and the weak judicial system along with the host of other wrong initiatives. All these taken together may not render accountability and justice.

The UN Secretary General Mr. Ban ki Moon called for accountability and transparency. Credible allegations of violations of international law must be investigated properly. Triumphalism as displayed in the post war period and not enough measures to heal the wounds of Tamils and Muslims pose serious obstacle to bring justice. The Channel 4’s documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” in June 2011 exposed the Sri Lanka’s military and its war time excesses to the whole world for the first time after the civil war ended in May 2009. The final phase of war brought the innocent people in the line of fire between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military. It culminated in killing of Prabhakaran and decimation of LTTE.

The Sri Lankan Government condemned the UN, Channel 4 and even several International Human Rights Organisations for defaming the Government and its Armed Forces. A malicious propaganda war kind of things started and they rejected the call for holding the military responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, it did accept by as late as August 1, 2011, that people were killed and properties destroyed and termed it as collateral damage that any war of that scale involves. And it also emphasised that Sri Lankan Government would like to forget the past and move on from here as the scourge of militancy has been wiped out and we must concentrate on building a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka. The question of holding the Sri Lankan State and its military accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity is quite absurd. It also released a video “Lies Agreed Upon”, on August 1, 2011, which sought to contradict the basic premises of the British Channel 4 documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”. That is how the hard earned peace even at the cost of justice and accountability is being rationalised by the Sri Lankan Government.

With more than two decade old civil war over, annihilation of LTTE, a farce called democracy in the form of Constitutional Dictatorship and amidst growing militarisation the siege within continues in Sri Lanka.

Not content with the military victory over LTTE, in order to keep his full control over the Government, President Mahinda Rajapaksa introduced 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka and got it passed on 8 September 2010. The 18th Amendment in the 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka which removes the two terms for the post of President has to be read in conjunction with Article 35 (2) of the Constitution. This Article provides complete immunity to the President during the time he/she holds the office. The President is not answerable to Courts and even to the Parliament. In another sense it could be inferred that the President can do whatever he/she likes, there is no bar of any kind. In a very clever and crafty move Mahinda has been able to fortify his position and he could rule over the country till the time he remains alive, off course with legitimate means through a periodic election after every six years of his term as the President. Is this not an example of Constitutional impropriety?

The President controls several ministries (Defence, Finance and Planning, Ports and Aviation, and Highways) under this present Government and three of his brothers are also given important posts- Speaker of the Parliament, Minister for Economic Development and the post of Defence Secretary. His son Namal Rajapaksa is also a Member of Parliament. Besides controlling the armed forces, the police and the Coast Guard, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is in charge of immigration and emigration. Interestingly, he is also in charge of developing prime state-owned land in the capital, Colombo and even NGO’s have come under the watchful eyes of the Defence Secretary. The president’s cousin, Nirupama is deputy minister for water supply and drainage. His nephew, Shashindra, is the Chief Minister of the Uva province. Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States, Jaliya Wickramasuriya is the President’s cousin, and also the ambassador to Russia, Udayanga Weeratunga. Other than these, dozens of nephews, nieces, cousins and in-laws have been appointed as heads of banks, boards and corporations.

This is apart from the largesse that President Mahinda has showered on the Military Generals and his loyalists. One would have expected the Army to go back to barracks once the civil war came to an end, but in the case of Sri Lanka it has remained to play far greater role from local to national and international. So one could see the ever growing presence of Sri Lankan Military personnel’s from selling tea at a roadside restaurant, to selling vegetables in the local neighbourhood in the name of controlling black marketing, to run the local civil bodies to man the civilian departments and also being posted as diplomats abroad. No wonder then that Sri Lankan defence budget has risen quite sharply. The current budget allocates 20 percent of GDP for defence expenditures. The Prime Minister while presenting the Appropriation Bills for the current year budget justified the steep rise in defence allocation on the ground of paying the salaries to the defence personnel and also for repaying the cost of military equipments that were bought during the country’s civil war time. However, the Sri Lankan Government has signed an agreement with Russia for buying 14 Military MI-171 Helicopters. Off late China has delivered two passenger planes to boost Sri Lanka’s post-war aviation industry. The Sri Lankan Navy conducted a huge exercise with Indian Navy recently. This clearly shows that Sri Lankan Government has bigger defence expansion plan. More than a dozen Military top officials have been posted to Diplomatic Missions abroad and other civilian departments within the country in years after civil war and many more such postings could be in the offing.

The Government of Sri Lanka lifted the state of emergency 27 years after it was imposed in the country in the wake of civil war. This move by the Government was a welcome sign but soon other announcements were made to introduce new regulations in the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which in actual terms nullify the lifting of emergency to a great extent. The new regulations proclaimed by the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is also the Defence Minister, under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO)are as follows: proscription of LTTE (Gazette No. 1721/2); detention of suspects (Gazette No. 1721/4) providing for measures to continue to detain suspects who had been previously detained under Emergency Regulations; keeping surrendered persons under Rehabilitation (gazette NO. 1721/5); extension of applications of the emergency measures (Gazette NO. 1721/3), providing for continuation of several emergency regulations notwithstanding the lapse of emergency. It was through another proclamation that the President had on 6th September 2011 discretely re-introduced an order made under section 12 of the PSO calling out all the members of the Armed Forces for the maintenance of public order in all 25 Districts. Lifting of emergency on the one hand and re-impositions of emergency time measures through proclamations under Public Security Ordinance certainly do not qualify to be a laudatory action on part of the Sri Lankan Government.

With 40,000 Army and 10,000 Police personnel in Jaffna alone, the security situation in the North and Eastern part of Sri Lanka has been far from satisfactory. Grease devils cases, killings and several other violent activities have helped only in continuing the siege within these areas in Sri Lanka. With an estimated 33,943 by the middle of July 2011, prisoners in different Jails in Sri Lanka, whereas the institutional capacity is meant to house only 11,000 prisoners, it has become the second most overcrowded prison system in the region after Bangladesh. The situation at its worst could be described only as hell for female as well as male prisoners as reported by Inter Press Service (IPS).

During the speech at the UN’s General Assembly on 23 September, 2011, Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that almost 95% of the 300,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have been rehabilitated. Several human rights organisations which have been monitoring the ground situation in Sri Lanka doubt the credibility of this claim. The central government and the military control all humanitarian and development activities in the formerly LTTE-held areas and continue to restrict the activities of local and international humanitarian groups. Another 7,000 IDPs are still in the Manik Farm camps, which the government is quickly closing, moving the residents out but not to their places of origin because those are still closely guarded by the military and reportedly not open to returns because of uncleared landmines. There is plan to shift them from Manik Farm Camps to an unprepared and isolated area at Kombavil in Mullaithivu district by October 5, 2011. Critically, there are another 100,000 IDPs who were forced from their homes before 2009 – including tens of thousands of Muslims expelled from the north by the LTTE in 1990 – still in camps, with host families or in transit situations. Those IDPs are rarely if ever mentioned by the government.

Whereas on the other hand, the Sri Lankan Government claims to have released 1,800 Tamil Tiger rebels as on 30 September, 2011. The actual information about the number of IDPs or the former Tamil Tiger rebels living in IDP camps and the detention centres is still shrouded in mystery. For those who have already been made to return, life is very difficult without much support from the local authorities. For many of the former Tamil Tiger rebels who have been allowed to go back from the detention centres getting re-integrated in society is turning out to be quite difficult. They carry the stigma of having worked for LTTE in the past and are being made to pay the price with non-acceptance in the mainstream society. Another worrying news is about an exceedingly high number of single women who are facing all kinds of hardships in their struggle for a life of dignity with virtually no resource of any kind. Up to September 2011, there are more than 30,000 estimated single women out of the 110,000 families that have returned to their villages in recent times as reported by the news agency Inter Press Service (IPS). There is a big possibility that this figure may not cover the exact number of such women due to lack of data. The pressure of eking out a living has forced most of them to join the ranks of the daily wage earners.

Several human rights defenders and journalist have either gone missing (disappeared) or have left the country lest they invite the wrath of the Government or the security establishment. There has been an increased surveillance on the NGOs and its leaders are being continuously harassed by the local and national security officials. Enforced disappearances and custodial death along with false encounter (extra judicial) killings have been on rise and the Army and Police enjoy complete impunity in this regard. In quite a disturbing development, the Higher Education Minister S. B. Dissanayaka, who believes in creating a disciplined society, has started a programme under which the University students in Sri Lanka have to undergo a military training in the name of leadership development now. What is also worrying is the history lessons that have been introduced which starts with the identification of Sinhala race with the Aryans and how the foreigners invaded the country and how they were overcome. Even the Universities are to get ex-security personnel’s to be posted as security guards which would be supplied by a private security company attached with the Ministry of Defence.

On 10 September, 2011, a 300 hundred year old Muslim shrine was demolished in Anuradhapura in full presence of the local Police by a mob which was led by a Buddhist monk. Other cases of Buddhist temples coming up at destroyed/damaged Hindu temples have been reported in the North and Eastern provinces as well. These and other not so good happenings in recent times for sure are going to create more hostile attitude and atmosphere wherein it would become very difficult for developing a harmonious relationship among Sinhala majority and minority Tamils. In such kind of scenario how could one even aspire for reconciliation?

It is still not too late for an honest assessment in the form of a stock taking exercise to ascertain the factors that led to civil war. The role of religion, caste, ethnicity, language and other obscurantist as well as reactionary and even parochial factors must be taken into account. The need for an open debate in public domain about the pernicious role of religion and caste have remained a taboo in Sri Lanka since a long time and continue to remain unchanged even now. Religion and caste have played a major role in constructing an ideology which hinges on superiority of one race/nation/community over the “Other”. The attributes like exclusivity, intimidation, bullying, hatred, distrust, hypocrisy, prejudices and the urge to dominate and subjugate an impure and unworthy “Other” apart from many other obscurantist likings and disliking stems from the caste system and the ideology built around it.

The ‘Nikaya’ system as developed by the Buddhist Sangha and even ‘Siyam Nikaya’ and ‘Amarapura Nikaya’ are all based on caste principles of inclusion and exclusion thereby giving overarching prominence to Goyigama caste. Tamil people who claim to draw their lineage from the Dravidian race have been found to be even more divided on caste lines. The Federal Party which later evolved into the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and still later to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has never been led by any person other than a Vellala caste. The Bandaranaika- Chelvanayakam Pact (BC Pact) in 1957, the Dudley- Chelva Pact in 1965 and even Rajiv Gandhi- J R Jayewardene Pact in 1987 all had caste factor as an important reason for opposition and also for their failure. Sri Lankan Armed Forces ruthlessly suppressed JVP in late 1980s, when over 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared. Extensive research has proved that many of those killed were poor and belonged to what is known as the lower castes. One of the ironies of the Tamil liberation movement has been that it highlighted the discrimination faced by Tamils at the hands of the majoritarian Sinhala population and at the same time it totally ignored the horrendous discrimination as practised within the Tamil society. There are evidences which show the complicity of a section of Tamil caste leaders and organisations who were even opposed to introduction of the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act, 1957, by the Sri Lankan Government.

One gets to hear now how caste question played its role during the civil war era and even in the post civil war era in the North and Eastern provinces and also in other regions in varying degrees. Social exclusion that continue to affect a sizeable percentage of underprivileged sections of Sri Lankan society and as seen in the discrimination faced during the post-tsunami relief camps, in the IDP camps and in several other contexts, which certainly cannot be explained purely in class or ethnic terms. The dispossessed, voiceless and even powerless teeming millions continue to remain invisible in the political or development discourse since a long time in the history of South Asian countries and Sri Lanka is not an exception in this regard. Caste blind approach and policies are not going to help anyone in understanding the true nature of crisis situation be it ethnic or otherwise.

Mere devolution of power to the North and Eastern provinces and the demand for accountability and reconciliation would end up in a useless exercise if there is no desire and determination to address the long standing issues between the majoritarian Sinhala (which comprises about 74% of population) and minority population (which comprises 13% Sri Lankan Tamils, 5% of Indian Tamils, Muslims 7% and others 1%). The belligerent, unrepentant and remorseless approach and policies on part of Sri Lankan Government, Sinhala, Tamils and others would not lead to any meaningful dialogue or resolution of the old crisis. The continued animosity, distrust and propaganda war would create more obstacles in the path for a just, egalitarian, accountable and vibrant Sri Lanka. What is needed is the debunking of the religio-cultural myths and recasting of the social, economic and political structure. If these do not happen the siege would continue in one form or the other. The horrendous stories of human rights violations may need to be told again and again till the time equity, accountability and justice prevails.

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